Pennsylvania and New Jersey farmers have not been hit as hard as their counterparts in the Midwest, where farmers are struggling through the worst drought in decades. There, the nation's most productive corn and soybean fields are withering in the sun amid grim predictions of low harvests and high prices.
But the Philadelphia region is experiencing one of the driest years since the government started measuring rainfall in 1873. For the year to date, the region has gotten only 15.04 inches of rain, about 8 inches less than farmers can ordinarily rely on. Even the recent thunderstorms and prospects of some rain this weekend won't be enough to replenish the lost moisture.
For grain farmers, rain later in the season cannot make up for what the crops are missing now. Corn is currently in a critical pollination period in which it needs water; after that, it won't grow, said Gary Swan of the Pennsylvania Farmers Bureau.
Unless conditions change dramatically, consumers can expect higher grain and milk prices, experts said. Fruits and vegetables, while in good supply, will yield lower profits for farmers who face the extra costs of irrigation.
The crops that have suffered most include field corn, soybeans, and hay, which are impractical to irrigate because of the costs.
Government surveys rate more than half of Pennsylvania's pastures in poor to very poor condition, said Jacqueline Moore, field crops section head at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service. (New Jersey was not surveyed.)
"We'll have a small, small crop if anything," said Sam Santini, who grows field corn and soybeans in Stewartsville, N.J. If it starts raining now, he said, he may be able to harvest 60 percent of his corn. "It's very dry. I haven't seen it this dry since 1999."
Santini added, "Warn everyone to start paying more for food. Field corn and soybeans are in so many different things."
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week described the drought as "the most serious situation" in 25 years. He said food prices will likely go up later in the year and early next year. Any immediate price hikes would not be related to the drought.
The ramifications of the nationwide grain shortfall will impact prices beyond the bread aisle. Farmers who buy field grains to feed their cattle might find that the price of grain is simply too high to be worth keeping the cattle alive, said Calum Turvey, a professor of agricultural finance at Cornell University. They may decide to slaughter their cows early, leading to low prices initially as beef floods the market but higher rates at the end of the summer and into the fall, when the supply runs out.
Dairy farmers also rely on grains for feed. They will pass their losses on to consumers, Turvey said, meaning the cost of a gallon of milk could spike. Both Pennsylvania and New Jersey regulate milk pricing.
Tom Matthews, a fourth-generation farmer whose family has run Milky Way Farm in Chester Springs since 1902, said his pasture has suffered so much that he has already fed about 30 percent of the hay he reserved for the winter to his Holstein dairy cows.
About five years ago, they planted two acres of Sudan grass to feed the cows. It comes from Africa and can deal with extreme heat.
Feeding costs aside, the dairy cows themselves are hot and tired, he said. The heat has caused them to produce about 15 percent less milk.
A bad day for crops is a good day for ice cream sales, one of the farm's new business ventures to cope with changing times for farming and poor weather conditions.
At Linvilla Orchards, a 300-acre farm in Media, farm manager Norm Schultz lamented that the heat has drained 30 percent of the farm's pond and hurt its pick-your-own business.
Linvilla can pull in about 100 people on a weekday and 1,000 on a weekend, said Schultz, who has served as farm manager for 14 years. But a day with temperatures in the 90s can halve the number of customers. The blueberry festival had to be canceled due to the heat, but the peach festival on Aug. 4 is still on the calendar.
Yet local farm watchers say that despite growers' concerns, there is no need yet to sound a major alarm.
"We're not anywhere near a crisis mode yet, but it is a little dry," said Al Murray, New Jersey's assistant secretary of agriculture.
To watch videos at the local farms visitut www.philly.com/gaventa and www.philly.com/milkyway
Contact staff writer Julie Zauzmer at 215-854-2771 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inquirer staff writer Anthony R. Wood contributed to this article.